Calm in Guinea-Bissau capital after president survives gun attack

A videograb shows Guinea-Bissau's president, Umaro Sissoco Embalo, delivering a speech in Bissau on Feb 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BISSAU (AFP) - Guinea-Bissau's capital appeared calm on Wednesday (Feb 2) a day after President Umaro Sissoco Embalo survived a gun attack, as France joined condemnation for what has been called an attempted coup in one of Africa's most unstable countries.

Heavily armed men on Tuesday afternoon surrounded government buildings in the capital Bissau where Embalo and his prime minister were believed to be attending a Cabinet meeting.

Embalo, 49, later told reporters that he had been unharmed during a five-hour gun battle, which he described as a plot to wipe out the government.

AFP journalists reported hearing sustained gunfire, and the president said several people were killed.

The small West African state has suffered four military coups since independence from Portugal in 1974.

On Wednesday, life was slowly returning to the streets of Bissau as shops and banks reopened, according to AFP correspondents.

Soldiers were patrolling the streets, however, and had also blocked access to the Palace of Government complex where the attack took place.

Souleymane Ndiaye, a 23-year-old Senegalese who sells clothes in Bissau's largest market, said he had returned to his stall on Wednesday morning but that customers were scarce.

Noelho Barboza, a carpenter, said that Tuesday's events risked throwing the country into reverse.

"We will no longer have the confidence of investors," the 27-year-old said.

'Kill the president'

Guinea-Bissau, an impoverished coastal state of around two million people lying south of Senegal, saw its most recent military coup in 2012.

In 2014, the country vowed to return to democracy, but it has enjoyed little stability since and the armed forces wield substantial clout.

At a news conference on Tuesday, President Embalo said that assailants had tried to "kill the president of the republic and the entire Cabinet."

"The attackers could have spoken to me before these bloody events that have seriously injured many and claimed lives," he added, appearing calm.

Armed soldiers move on the main artery of the capital after heavy gunfire around the presidential palace in Bissau, on Feb 1, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

The exact death toll from the attack and the identity and motives of the assailants remain unclear.

But Embalo said the attack was linked to decisions he had taken "to fight drug trafficking and corruption".

Guinea-Bissau suffers from endemic corruption, and is known as a hub for cocaine trafficking between Latin America and Europe.

Wave of coups

Both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Guinea-Bissau is a member, on Tuesday condemned what they termed an "attempted coup."

They were joined on Wednesday by France, which lashed "the coup attempt" in Bissau and voiced "respect for the constitutional order and... support for the democratic institutions."

The events sparked fear that the country would join the ranks of other West African governments that have fallen to military coups recently.

In Mali, the army seized power in 2020. Guinea's military followed suit in September last year, ousting elected president Alpha Conde.

Then on Jan 24, Burkina Faso's army also announced it had deposed President Roch Marc Christian Kabore and taken control of the country.

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